Introduction

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As we move to a more technology-centered society, where many of our governmental functions are increasingly dependent upon computers and other types of emerging technology, the degree of accessibility of these technologies to people with disabilities will become more significant. Like others, people with disabilities who want to work for the Federal Government, pay their taxes, apply for benefits or services, or have access to the vast amount and variety of information provided by the government to the public, will increasingly use electronic methods to accomplish these goals.

This report, "Information Technology and People with Disabilities: The Current State of Federal Accessibility" (Report), presents a snapshot of whether people with disabilities could easily use the Federal Government's information technology at the time of this survey. It also recommends specific steps to ameliorate some existing problems and prevent future ones. The Report will serve as a baseline against which future progress may be measured. Because agencies are generally not required to retrofit existing information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities (except as a reasonable accommodation upon request from a particular person, or to meet the general nondiscrimination obligations of sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), the Report does not criticize individual agencies, regardless of the current degree of accessibility of their information technology.

Background

When computers first became a standard feature in the American workplace, people with disabilities were generally able to use the new technology with relative ease, with assistance from adaptive or assistive technology. For instance, people who were blind could function well using operating systems similar to the Disk Operating System (DOS) environment by using a "screen reader" -- technology which reads aloud, in an artificial voice, the words and punctuation marks that appear on a computer monitor. Since a computer mouse was not used in a DOS environment, people who were blind who had screen readers could use computers very effectively because everything on the screen and all commands necessary to interact with the software were discrete, text-based commands such as "control P to print." Additionally, very few technology applications contained auditory features, so that most people who were deaf or hard of hearing had no trouble using the technology.

As technology became more sophisticated, applications came to rely heavily on graphical user interfaces (GUI). Software applications and Internet pages now often require users to "point-and-click" -- using a computer mouse to click on an icon to accomplish a task. Many people with disabilities cannot work in a "point-and-click" environment unless it contains redundant features, such as a software application that allows the user to choose between clicking on a printer icon or hitting "control P" to print a document. Screen readers cannot read images -- icons, buttons, or graphics -- unless there is text associated with them. Similarly, multimedia environments tend to screen out people who are deaf or hard of hearing unless important audio information is also conveyed visually.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

The transition from a DOS environment to a GUI environment meant that many people with disabilities who were capable of functioning fully in the past were locked out due to technology advances. Congress responded to this unintended consequence of the evolution in technology by passing section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1986. Pub. L. No. 93-112, Title V, § 508, as added Pub. L. No. 99-506, Title VI, §603(a), Oct. 21, 1986, 100 Stat. 1830. The amendment, entitled "Electronic Equipment Accessibility," called for the Administrator of the General Services Administration and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education to develop guidelines for the Federal Government's procurement of accessible electronic equipment. Although this original 1986 version of section 508 required each federal agency to comply with these guidelines, little progress was made.

Twelve years later, when Congress revisited the Rehabilitation Act in the context of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-220, 112 Stat. 936 (1998), it acknowledged the need for new legislation to strengthen section 508. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee found the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 "provide needed emphasis on . . . access to computers and information technology." S. Rep. No. 105-166, at 2 (1998). Under the amended section 508, electronic and information technology (EIT) that is developed, procured, maintained or used by federal agencies must be accessible to federal employees and members of the public with disabilities, unless compliance would impose an undue burden. Section 508 contains six key concepts:

  • Section 508 Standards. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) will issue final Section 508 Standards to measure the degree of accessibility to people with disabilities of the Federal Government's electronic and information technology.
  • Agencies' responsibilities. Agencies' EIT products must comply with the Access Board's Section 508 Standards ­ which will be rolled into the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and into the acquisition regulations of all agencies not covered by the FAR -- if the products are procured on or after August 7, 2000.
  • Periodic compliance reviews and reports. Under the guidance of the Department of Justice, every federal agency will periodically evaluate the accessibility of its EIT and the Department of Justice will evaluate agencies' responses to complaints. This information will be gathered in reports from the Attorney General to the President and Congress.
  • Enforceability. Both members of the public and federal employees with disabilities can sue in federal court or file administrative complaints for violations of section 508 with respect to EIT procured on or after August 7, 2000.
  • Bid challenges. Because the Section 508 Standards will become part of the FAR, losing bidders who offered accessible EIT products to agencies may challenge the bid process if they believe that an agency awarded a bid to the offeror of an inaccessible product, where procuring the more accessible product would not have imposed an undue burden.
  • Section 508 applies regardless of whether an agency has employees with disabilities.

Section 508 contains some important limitations:

  • Built-in assistive technology is not required where it is not needed. The law does not require every workstation of nondisabled employees ­ or every EIT product ­ to be fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Products like desktop computers do not have to be outfitted with refreshable Braille displays, but they must be compatible with refreshable Braille displays so that if an individual who is blind needs one as a reasonable accommodation, he or she can use it with the agency's standard workstations. The Access Board's Section 508 Standards will determine when an EIT product must be fully accessible and when it must only be compatible with assistive technology.
  • Undue burden. Agencies do not have to procure EIT products that satisfy the Access Board's Section 508 Standards if doing so is an undue burden. "Undue burden" generally means a "significant difficulty or expense." The Standards will include factors that agencies can use to help apply this term consistently.
  • Development, maintenance, and use of EIT products. In addition to its language regarding procurement, section 508 requires agencies to "develop, maintain, and use" only EIT products that are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. However, the enforcement provisions of section 508 cover only "procurement" of EIT products. Members of the public and employees with disabilities cannot sue pursuant to section 508 for agencies' development, maintenance, or use of EIT products unless these products were procured on or after August 7, 2000. Agencies continue to have long-standing obligations under sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities upon request. See "Other Requirements of the Rehabilitation Act," below.
  • Private use of EIT products is unaffected. While manufacturers and designers of EIT products generally will not be able to sell or lease inaccessible products to federal agencies and departments for procurements after August 7, 2000, section 508 does not extend to these companies' own use of EIT products. For instance, if a manufacturer wishes to sell desktop computers to federal agencies, it must ensure that these computers comply with the Access Board's Section 508 Standards or agencies will be unable to purchase them. It does not, however, affect the company's own computers (used by its own employees), those offered for sale to the public, nor does it affect the company's Internet site or other uses of EIT.

Other Requirements of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 cannot be fully grasped without a basic understanding of sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These sections contain general prohibitions of disability-based discrimination and generally require federal agencies and departments to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified persons with disabilities, including employees and members of the public, upon request. "Reasonable accommodations" are not one-size-fits-all responses to disability access issues. Instead, they are measures carefully tailored to meet the needs of an individual with a disability to enable him or her to accomplish a particular job or participate in a specific program. What is a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability in one position may not be adequate or appropriate for another person with a disability in the same position.

Compare:

  • Section 508 is "technology-centered" and focuses on whether mainstream EIT products meet the Access Board's Section 508 Standards, whether or not an agency has employees with disabilities or serves members of the public with disabilities.
  • The reasonable accommodation provisions of sections 501 and 504 are "person-centered" and focus on how an individual's disability should be accommodated in a particular setting.

As the Access Board's Section 508 Standards cannot -- and do not pretend to -- ensure that all EIT will be universally accessible to all people with disabilities, reasonable accommodations will always be required in some instances. However, as agencies pay more attention to accessibility when procuring or developing their EIT, they will find it easier and easier to provide reasonable accommodations when requested to do so. In some instances, people with disabilities may not need accommodations at all, as the underlying technology will be fully accessible to them.

Example: When an agency is choosing among e-mail systems to buy for its employees, section 508 requires the agency to consider whether the systems will be accessible for people who are blind and who use screen readers (regardless of whether the agency has any current employees with disabilities). Sections 501 and 504 would require the agency to provide screen reading software to a specific individual who is blind, upon request, as a reasonable accommodation that would enable the person to perform his or her job functions. On the other hand, if the agency ignores section 508 and purchases an e-mail system that cannot be used with screen readers, it may not be able provide a reasonable accommodation to future blind employees to enable them to use the shared e-mail system.

The Department of Justice's Section 508 Self-Evaluation Guidance to Agencies

Section 508 requires the Attorney General to lead all executive agencies and departments, including the United States Postal Service, conducting self-evaluations to determine the extent to which their EIT is accessible to persons with disabilities. This Report reflects the results of these evaluations and provides a baseline against which progress can be measured. It is based on information from 81 agencies, including over 250 components.

The information gathered during the self-evaluation process ­ and, consequently, the conclusions drawn by the Department of Justice in this Report ­ have some inherent limitations. The Department found that it was difficult to guide agencies to conduct meaningful evaluations of the degree of accessibility of their EIT because there were no settled criteria against which such measurements could be taken. The Access Board's final Section 508 Standards will not be published until August 7, 2000. Indeed, the term "electronic and information technology" ­ upon which the very scope of section 508 depends ­ will not be clearly defined until the Standards are published. The Department, therefore, had to determine the best sources of information available in the public and private sectors and create its evaluation tools accordingly. The resulting Component Questionnaire, which formed the basis for all of the self-evaluations, reflects the Department's best initial view as to what types of technology would be covered by section 508 and what factors would enhance the degree to which these technologies are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. While many elements of the Department's evaluation tools may correspond well to those of the Access Board's final rule defining EIT and implementing Section 508 Standards, there will, no doubt, be some differences. Readers should keep these limitations in mind.

Coordination of this effort posed a daunting challenge. The Federal Government is by far the single largest employer and service provider in the country. There is no uniformity among agency administrative models: Small agencies tend to have a single centralized procurement and information technology (IT) infrastructure, while larger and cabinet-level agencies tend to be more complex and broken into sub-units, often called "components."(2) For instance, the Marine Mammal Commission ­ with 10 employees ­ has a single, unified, hierarchical structure. In contrast, the Department of Justice, with approximately 96,000 employees, is divided into many components with decentralized and widely varying procurement policies and technological needs: the degree to which technology is used and the types of technology employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons is vastly different from that of the Civil Rights Division. Still other large agencies are decentralized to the point that their many individual components are almost entirely autonomous with respect to their procurement policies and their choice of information technology systems. For these agencies, simply identifying all of the components of the agency posed a formidable challenge for those (i.e., "Designated Agency Officials") who were responsible for coordinating their agencies' self-evaluation efforts.

When creating the evaluation tools, the Department decided that a multi-faceted approach made the most sense: Agencies would be asked to consult with their employees with disabilities, test certain products using common assistive technologies, answer objective "checklist-style" reports for some types of technology, and provide a subjective evaluation of their findings. This combination of approaches was used to evaluate the most commonly-used federal agency Internet and intranet sites, software applications, kiosks and other information transaction machines, and printers, copiers, fax machines, and other office EIT.

Another portion of the Component Questionnaire asks about components' telecommunications products and services. These questions focus not only on accessibility of the telecommunication products and services themselves, but also whether components have properly trained their personnel to make the most of free, easy-to-use telecommunication services designed to enable those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have speech disabilities to communicate by telephone with others. Many of these questions relate to agencies' compliance with sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Department also instructed each component to look at its procurement practices and policies to determine whether they were appropriately incorporating accessibility into their solicitation and evaluation of procured mainstream technology products and services.

Because this Report is intended to provide a baseline for later comparison, not a comprehensive evaluation of every technology product used by every federal agency, the Department determined that the most useful evaluations would be those that focused on the most widely-used technology products in each component. For instance, as explained in greater detail below, components were instructed to evaluate the 10 software applications that were used most widely within each component; the 20 component Web sites with the greatest traffic volume (or number of "hits") on a weekly basis; the 10 most widely-used information transaction machines; and the 10 most widely-used fax machines, printers, copiers, or other office machines.

Finally, the Department asked each agency to review the data provided by its components, summarize its accessibility strengths and weaknesses, outline any plans it has for improving the degree of accessibility of its EIT, and provide to the Department recommendations for better implementation of section 508 throughout the federal executive branch.

This Report and the data on which it is based reflects a "snapshot" of the Federal Government's degree of EIT accessibility prior to full implementation of section 508. At the time agencies completed their self-evaluations and when this Report was written, no generally accepted standards existed to guide agencies in their acquisition, development, maintenance, or use of accessible EIT. The Report and the self-evaluation materials provided by the Attorney General to all agencies establish a baseline against which future progress may be measured.

The analysis in the Telecommunications and Procurement Policies and Practices sections is based upon weighted data. The Department divided agencies into relevant size categories: cabinet level and large agencies, mid-sized agencies, small agencies, and very small agencies. See General Appendix A (Categories of Agencies). Within each category, the Department divided the number of employees for whom a component provided telecommunications or procurement data by the total number of employees in that category for whom telecommunications or procurement data was provided. Within each size category, responses on behalf of a greater number of employees were assigned more weight than responses given on behalf of fewer employees. Specific workforce statistics and weighting factors for each component providing telecommunications or procurement data are found at Telecommunications Appendix A and Procurement Appendix A.

The analysis in the Web, Software, ITMs, and Other IT Equipment sections is based upon raw data. The Department requested components to provide statistics by which weights could be calculated (e.g., the average number of employees or members of the public to use a software application on a weekly basis). The Department did not have confidence in the accuracy of the data provided with respect to these sections, unfortunately, and could not perform meaningful calculations. For instance, some components provided an estimate of the average number of persons world-wide who used a particular software application on a weekly basis, rather than the number of people who used copies of the application licensed to the component.

In the Report, the Department of Justice does not endorse any particular EIT product, system, designer, or manufacturer.

In all, the self-evaluation of all federal agencies required more time, effort, and coordination than had initially been expected, both by the Department of Justice and all participating agencies. All agency personnel, especially the Designated Agency Officials, deserve recognition, as their diligent efforts have made it possible to create a Report that will help ensure that persons with disabilities will not be left behind in this information age.

General Findings and Recommendations

The single largest barrier to the successful implementation of section 508 is that one needs to understand information technology as well as the disability accessibility issues. Accessibility issues have largely been the purview of equal employment opportunity offices. Most government IT officials believe that disability accessibility issues are outside their domain. This perspective revealed itself in many ways throughout the self-evaluation process.

The Department of Justice's initial contact with agencies came in the form of a letter and package of information dated April 2, 1999, from the Attorney General to the head of each agency. Because section 508 represented new territory for most agencies, the Department could not draw upon existing points of contact within each agency. Accordingly, each agency was directed to designate a point person -- or "Designated Agency Official" (DAO) -- with whom the Department could correspond throughout the self-evaluation process. Agencies were given ten days to fax the DAO's contact information to the Department (name, title, address, telephone and fax numbers, and e-mail address), using a standard form provided for their use. Very few agencies met this initial deadline. The Department later discovered that most packages had traveled in a routine pattern: The staff of many agency heads (commonly called the "front office") -- upon reading words like "Rehabilitation Act" and "disability" -- initially sent them to their equal employment opportunity offices (EEO offices). The EEO offices -- upon seeing words like "gifs" and "applets" -- usually sent them back. The front offices then often sent the packages to the Information Resource Management (IRM) offices, or their equivalent. The IRM staff, upon reading the words "screen readers" and "refreshable Braille displays," decided that there must have been some mistake and usually sent the packages back to the EEO office . . . and so on. The April 12, 1999 deadline for designating agency officials passed with few agencies providing their contact information in a timely manner.

Data provided by the agencies suggest that the majority of agencies that continue to handle IT accessibility issues exclusively on an "ad hoc" or "as needed" basis, instead of integrating accessibility into the development and procurement of their mainstream IT products. Many IT officials hold the mistaken belief that persons with disabilities can always be accommodated upon request by using widely available assistive technology devices (e.g., screen readers, screen enlargers, volume control apparatuses, pointing devices that serve as alternatives to a computer mouse, voice recognition software, etc.) in conjunction with mainstream technology applications. Indeed, the goal of section 508 is to ensure that the agency will always be able to provide reasonable accommodations. Without adequate planning, however, the possibility of providing an accommodation to person with a disability may be foreclosed. See, e.g., the discussions of accessibility barriers created by certain uses of Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format, in section III, n. 19. Use of an "ad hoc" or "as needed" approach to IT accessibility will result in barriers for persons with disabilities. A much better approach is to integrate accessibility reviews into the earliest stages of design, development, and procurement of IT. Once an accessible IT architecture is established, then ­ and only then ­ can persons with disabilities be successfully accommodated on an "as needed" basis.

While it is clear that most agencies would benefit from increased communication among their IT personnel, EEO staff, and employees and members of the public with disabilities, it would be a poor use of scarce government resources to require each agency to set up isolated mechanisms for determining the extent of accessibility for IT products and services. A more successful approach would be to create a means ­ or multiple means ­ for agencies to share information as it is developed. Many of the recommendations included in this Report are designed to facilitate effective coordination among agencies.

The Report is organized into the same subject areas that formed the core of the Component Questionnaire:

  1. Federal Agencies' Web Pages
  2. Software
  3. Telecommunications
  4. Information Transaction Machines and Kiosks
  5. Fax Machines, Copiers, Printers, and Other IT Office Equipment
  6. Procurement Policies and Practices

In addition to the summaries and analyses of the survey data, the Department has included some anecdotal information gathered from persons with disabilities and some agencies. Several of these anecdotes are real-life examples of barriers encountered by persons with disabilities (members of the public and federal employees). Others single out "Promising Practices" of several agencies which have shown leadership or innovation in addressing disability accessibility issues.


1. This document is available on the Department of Justice's section 508 Web site (www.usdoj.gov/crt/508). People with disabilities may request copies in Braille, large print, or on computer disk by calling 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY).

2. It is difficult to draw generalizations, however. For instance, the extremely large United States Postal Service ­ with 800,000 employees ­ has a centralized procurement and IT infrastructure, making it more like the Marine Mammal Commission than the Department of Justice in this regard. Other cabinet-level agencies with single components reporting on section 508 issues include the Executive Office of the President and the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans' Affairs.


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Updated August 6, 2015

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